The Functions of the Sanhedrin Ha-Gedola

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

The first mishna in Sanhedrin lists the various roles of the Sanhedrin Ha-Gedola, loosely translated as the High Court. Although the mishna lists several functions, others are omitted. Is this listing deliberate? Are the functions listed representative of a particular aspect of the Sanhedrin? Are functions not listed reflective of a different facet of the Sanhedrin Ha-Gedola? This partial listing may indeed assist in deconstructing the various dimensions and functions of the Beit Din Ha-Gadol.


The list of the mishna may be divided into four different categories:


1-    Cardinal Judgment – adjudicating cases involving kings, the Kohen Gadol, a Shevet, and Ir Ha-Nidachat.

2-    Authorizing “voluntary” wars (milchemet reshut)

3-     Zoning holy sites, such as Yerushalayim and the courtyard of the Mikdash

4-    Appointing a “lower” Sanhedrin, such as the 23 member Sanhedrin Ketana associated with each shevet or each city


Tosafot in Sota (7b) highlight two functions of the Sanhedrin Ha-Gedola that are not listed in the mishna. The mishna does not mention that a woman who is accused of being a sota appears before the Sanhedrin (in an attempt to frighten her and encourage a confession that would preempt her drinking the water). In addition, the mishnah does not describe the role of the Sanhedrin Ha-Gedola in the case of zaken mamrei - when a member of the Sanhedrin openly disputes a ruling of the Sanhedrin and is, under certain conditions, deemed a rebellious judge and liable to a death sentence. Why doesn’t the mishna list these two additional functions of Beit Din Ha-Gadol?


Tosafot suggest that in these two instances, the “final” aspect of the procedure does not require the Sanhedrin Ha-Gedola, and therefore these instances therefore are not recorded in the mishna. The sota woman would subsequently visit the Kohen in the Mikdash and continue the sota procedures. Her visit to the Sanhedrin was merely preliminary, and hence this role of the Sanhedrin is not mentioned. Similarly, a rebel “zaken,” after issuing his dissenting opinion, would be judged and tried in any court of 23, not necessarily by the Sanhedrin of 70. Hence their role in his becoming a zaken mamrei is not recorded in the mishna.


There may be an additional reason that these functions are not recorded –in each instance, the Sanhedrin is not ACTIVELY issuing a verdict of a decision. Unlike the cases that are mentioned in the mishna (such as appointing courts or judging kings), in these two instances, the Sanhedrin is not a legally ACTIVE body. In the instance of sota, the Sanhedrin provides BACKDROP for the attempts to deter the drinking of water; in the instance of the zaken mamrei, the Sanhedrin is the symbol of the mesora that the zaken is rebelling against by issuing his own verdict. Since these instances do not cast the Sanhedrin in an ACTIVE role, they are not mentioned in the mishna.


The Rambam develops an additional role for the Sanhedrin Ha-Gedola – to sanctify the new moon and determine leap years. According to the Rambam (see Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, mitzvat asei 153), these activities must be performed by the Sanhedrin Ha-Gedola. The Ramban refutes the Rambam, claiming that any common beit din can supervise these decisions. According to the Rambam, why isn’t the role of the Sanhedrin in shaping the calendar listed in the first mishna of Sanhedrin?


Perhaps this omission reflects that fact that the Sanhedrin’s role in shapingthe calendar is based on a third dimension. R. Soloveitchik zt”l developed a concept that in certain realms, the Beit Din Ha-Gadol functions in a representative capacity. In certain domains – such as the judgment of a Kohen Gadol or king – they are invested with exclusive authority. In other areas the “people” themselves are authorized and Beit Din Ha-Gadol represents the people at large. A well-known example is the situation of kibbush rabbim. Lands that were not included in the Biblical boundaries of Israel can be incorporated into halakhic Israel if capturedwith the majority of the population’s support (see, for example, the Rambam, Hilkhot Terumot 1:2). Yet when the Rambam writes about the logistics of these conquests (Hilkhot Melakhim 5:1), he describes a scenario in which the Beit Din Ha-Gadol authorize the seizure. R. Soloveitchik claimed that in this context, the Beit Din is not operating as supreme authority, but rather as a representative body. Instead of conducting a poll to gauge national support, Beit Din can authorize the conquest and render it a national project rather than a personal mission. The Beit Din Ha-Gadol’s ratification of the project renders it a “kibush rabbim,” a collective mission, even though the population at large was not consulted. The Beit Din Ha-Gadol’s consent represents the will of the people.


Similarly, the Beit Din Ha-Gadol’s role in shaping the calendar is representative and not authority based. Ultimately, the “people” determine the calendar, but the Beit Din implements their will through its decisions. The Rav highlighted a gemara in Berakhot (49a) to reinforce the notion that the people determine the calendar. The gemara formulates the berakha that concludes Mussaf as “Mekadesh Yisrael ve-hazemanim” based on the premise that the PEOPLE ultimately sanctify the special days and the general calendar. Even though we have no halakhic record of direct calendric shaping, the nation at large is referred to as the “shapers” or sanctifiers. The Rav claimed that Beit Din Ha-Gadol represents the general population in this activity.


This separate function of the Beit Din Ha-Gadol may justify the omission of these functions from the mishna’s list. According to the Rambam, the Sanhedrin shapes the calendar, so why isn’t this function listed in the mishna? For that matter, why isn’t the Sanhedrin’s role in authorizing kibbush rabbim listed in the mishna? Based on the Rav’s idea, their exclusion may be based upon their stemming from a different dimension of the Beit Din. The mishna only listed the activities of the Sanhedrin that stem from its role as supreme authority – that is, appointments, capital adjudications, zoning holy sites, and authorizing voluntary wars. Functions that stem from their representative capacity – such as shaping the calendar and authorizing public conquests – are not listed in the mishna.


Perhaps this division can explain another interesting omission – the role of the Sanhedrin in appointing kings and a Kohen Gadol. The mishna lists the Sanhedrin’s role in judging national leaders, but not in appointing them. The Tosefta (Sanhedrin, perek 3) provides an alternative listing to the mishna that does include appointing kings and a Kohen Gadol. Why does our mishna omit it?


Perhaps the ability to appoint stems from the Sanhedrin’s representative capacity and not its authority. Ultimately, the people appoint both a king and a Kohen Gadol, but the Sanhedrin represents the people in these activities. Since the mishna only lists functions of the Sanhedrin that stem from its inherent authority, it does not list this capacity, just as it does not list its ability to authorize public conquests (kibbush rabbim) or kiddush ha-chodesh.



The Brisker Rav discusses the role of Sanhedrin in appointing kings and a Kohen Gadol.  He actually distinguishes between the two and claims that appointing a king is solely Sanhedrin’s domain. By contrast when they appoint a Kohen Gadol they are representing a broader populace.